The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way we work, and the effects are trickling down to the people just entering the workforce. Over the past year, many internships have been canceled. Others have been delayed or shortened, and some companies have opted to hire fewer interns. But, as more businesses are learning to navigate the pandemic, many are bringing back their internships—this time, virtually.

Nearly 55% of companies reported transitioning internships to virtual programs, according to surveys of employers conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. 51% of students are glad to have a virtual internship, especially if it means the internship goes ahead, according to a survey by Yello

Virtual internships give business access to a broader, more diverse talent network, and students gain new opportunities and more convenience. But, Kamal Thakarsey, vice president of marketing at college career platform Handshake, says companies must embrace technology and implement new processes to make virtual internships work. 

“Companies should first acknowledge the changes that have taken place as a result of the pandemic,” he says. “While many companies have already invested in technology and altered processes to better accommodate interns starting remotely, it’s important to understand that the process will be different for everyone.”

Companies can access a more diverse slate of interns 

Mission North, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, canceled its summer internships in 2020, but launched a virtual program in the fall, says Gillian Davis, the company’s head of human resources and operations. The company’s interns typically work in person and are recruited from areas where the company has offices (San Francisco, Portland and New York). Going remote forced Mission North to look outside of that network.

“What we found is that people had moved for reasons of the pandemic,” Davis explains. “They were finishing up their classes online, and we opened it up to fully remote, and that’s how we ended up with a lot of applicants from other places.” 

Virtual internships help remove some of the geographical and socio-economic barriers that low-income, first-generation students and students of color often face when seeking internships. The ability to recruit talent from all backgrounds and locations is a benefit of the remote workforce shift, Thakarsey says, “Due to the flexibility of virtual systems, employers are able to expand their recruitment reach beyond their go-to colleges, providing students at smaller colleges or distant locations the opportunity to access and build relationships with these companies and secure competitive jobs.” 

Virtual internships inject energy into the company, Davis adds. “It frees us up as employers to really find and identify the very best candidates that we can without regard to whether they can come into the office.”

Which qualities make the best virtual interns?

Nashville, Tennessee-based business technology company TechnologyAdvice never considered remote internships pre-pandemic, but when the rest of the team went remote, so did the interns, says Shayleen Stuto, the company’s vice president of human resources and administration. The company has three full-time, paid interns who live in the Nashville area and work remotely. 

Transparency and decision-making are important qualities for virtual interns, she says, “In a remote world, autonomy, time management and communication are critical, so vet for those skills in addition to what you may traditionally have on your must-haves list.” 

Using video job interviews, virtual career fairs and tours, and direct messaging makes the hiring process more flexible, Thakarsey says, adding that curiosity and motivation are other essential qualities for virtual interns. He emphasizes looking beyond a recruit’s GPA, instead considering an intern’s skills, experiences and extracurricular activities. 

Virtual interns who are good communicators, adaptable and collaborative make the cut at Aon, a provider of risk, retirement and health products, according to Kelli Clark, the company’s vice president and global head of culture. Pre-pandemic, Aon’s interns mostly worked in office, but last summer, they hired 210 virtual interns in the US. The paid internships were shortened from 10 weeks to eight. The program has been successful, so the company plans to keep some virtual elements, even once in-person interactions are possible.

Interpersonal connection can be a challenge

Shifting to a remote workforce has been challenging for some companies and employees. It can be especially tough for interns, who may be entering a professional setting for the first time. Clark says her team started with the question, “How can these interns still gain meaningful experience, be fully immersed in their work and obtain a good sense of the collaborative, people-driven culture?” So, she says the program focused on mixing networking opportunities, real client work and educational sessions. 

Communication is a key element. Cross-team collaboration and regular meetings must be more intentional for remote teams. “Have a plan in place for how frequently communication will exist between managers, interns and peers and set a clear baseline early on of what the expectations are and what success looks like,” Stuto emphasizes. 

Over-communicating, especially in the beginning, may help interns feel comfortable asking questions and discussing problems, Thakarsey says. 

“One mistake that is common among employers is limiting their involvement too soon in the process,” he explains. “Of course you want to empower interns to be independent and problem solve on their own, but it will understandably take them a little longer to get adjusted and up-to-speed out of an office setting.”

How to make a virtual internship work

The past few months has shown how productive and engaged remote workforces, including interns, can be. But, companies must keep reassessing their technology, goals and procedures to identify what’s working and what isn’t, Thakarsey says. That may mean adding more check-ins and mentorship for virtual interns.

Communication tools like Zoom and Slack have been popular ways to keep people connected, and that helps interns feel like they’re part of the team, Thakarsey says. A Handshake survey of interns found 52% were worried that shifting to remote work would impact their mental health, with most concerned about feeling isolated. According to Yello, 67% of interns want daily check-ins with their managers. 

Video, phone and instant messaging help Aon’s remote teams stay in contact, Clark says. Managers were trained on keeping interns engaged, and each intern was assigned a buddy. Interactive network and learning opportunities and mental health and well-being support were also included in the program. 

Structure is important for virtual internships, too, and training should be ongoing, says Davis, who’s hiring more virtual interns this summer. Successful programs depend on planning so interns feel connected and engaged. 

“You really need to double down on your time investment,” she explains, and that may mean more contact. “If you have a regular meeting with somebody that’s once a week for 15 minutes, with remote [staff], double or even triple that.” 

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